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Universal/NBC Highlights OCEANS 8 Kayaking Films

If it’s spring where you live and you’ve spent much of the winter seemingly trapped indoors (as I have) it means now is the time to start thinking powerfully about getting … out there.

Our friends at Universal Sports (NBC) agree and are encouraging us all by dubbing April … ADVENTURE MONTH. One of the highlights is that the network will air all of our OCEANS 8 sea kayaking films, plus “Terra Antarctica,” several times each throughout the month, premiering Monday, April 4, at 10 p.m. EST.

So … if you’re punching around the dial, no matter the time of day during April, you should stumble across us paddling in the Aleutians, French Polynesia, Croatia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Gabon, Tasmania … or Antarctica.

To find out where to find Universal Sports on your cable dial go here, and here for the full schedule.

Eleuthera, Bahamas: Learning To Swim

Eleuthera, Bahamas—Named after the Greek word for “freedom,” Eleuthera is 110 miles long and just a mile at its widest. To the east is the occasionally wild Atlantic, to the west a shallow, usually calm Caribbean Sea. The waters on both sides are ideal for swimming.

Unless, of course, you don’t know how to swim. Which is the case for 80 percent of the Eleuthera islanders. Taught to fear the ocean, even some of the fishermen who make their living off the sea can only dog paddle.

A pair of young American women are trying to erase that aquatic inability, founding Swim to Empower, an organization that teaches people of all ages to swim.

Filmmaker Jen Galvin documented the efforts of Swim to Empower in her movie Free Swim and book We, Sea. “Having grown up in the U.S., on Long Island, I was aware of the questions about minorities and the swimming gap and had wondered why some kids in my neighborhood didn’t know how to swim.”

Her documentary has helped expand the program.

“The story promotes discussion about the swimming gap and ignites broader questions about health and conservation,” says Galvin. “For many, swimming translates into a new perspective—a ‘sink or swim’ mixed with a ‘there’s no place like home’ sentiment—bringing a greater sense of freedom with the knowledge that the underwater world exists and can be survived, and even enjoyed.”

Filmmaker Galvin and one of Swim to Empower’s founders, Brenna Hughes, who has been teaching swimming in the Bahamas for eight years, sat down to tell TakePart about persuading water-bound people to make peace with the water that surrounds them.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Pirates, Hostages and Ransom; Old Stories With Modern Twists

Eleuthera, Bahamas – The late 1600s and early 1700s were the golden age of pirates here, led by Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard), who wove hemp into his beard and kept it smoldering during battles; Calico Jack, who favored striped coats and pants and nurtured the careers of the most famous women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read; and Sir Henry Morgan. As the Caribbean islands changed hands among the English, Dutch, French, Spanish and U.S., pirates were often hired to “police” them by faraway governments with their hands full back home.

While Somali pirates seem bold today — grabbing private sailboats and killing all onboard, not hesitating to kidnap women and children, and yesterday making a run at an American cargo boat, the Maersk Alabama, for the third time – they are legacy of a long history.

Ships commanded by pirates first explored the entirety of the Indian Ocean, from Persia to the tip of Africa. The same waters the Somali’s operate in today were dominated by pirates in 694 BC, when Assyrian king Sennacherib grew so fatigued with them attacking his ships heavy with gold, silver, spices, copper and teak that he went to war against them. Roman emperors were hassled by the same headache while simultaneously the Mediterranean was home to pirates from Turkey to Greece.

Taking hostages has always been part of the game: In 78 BC a young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates and held for six weeks, until a ransom was paid. Two years later, in Pompeii, laws were passed to “stamp out” piracy, which never quite took hold. In 1575 pirates operating out of Tunis and Algiers grabbed of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, and his brother Rodrigo and held them for five years. It took American President Thomas Jefferson sending his Navy to war, in 1801, against Tripoli-based pirates to stop open-sea hijackings … until the Somali’s emerged a few years ago.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Art for Mankind’s Sake

Though they seem like distant past lives, I used to write often about photography and I used to live in Paris, the latter for about ten years. One of my favorite annual events there was called Paris Photo, a gathering of and displays by 100-plus of the best photo galleries from around the world, in the Carousel de Louvre. I met and made many friends there over the years, occasionally bought some beautiful photography that I would never have discovered otherwise, all in a very Parisian setting.

As luck would have it, the event was on last weekend while I was in Paris, so I lucked out. I went on a warm November Saturday, so the place was packed … I would have preferred to wander the gallery displays privately, or at least unaccompanied by a thousand elbowing, rubber-necking Frenchmen, but it was still great. The biggest difference since the last event I’d seen, easily a half-dozen years ago, was the content. Then, it seemed, the most beautiful work by some of the best art photographers in the world was focused on art for art’s sake. Still-lives from Japan, big colorful recreations by Gregory Crewdsen, and lots and lots of work by my old pal Peter Beard.

It’s a different world now and was reflected in the artwork, and the theme of the show: Work by and about the Arab and Iranian worlds. Fourteen galleries from the Mideast were spotlighted, as were about fifty Muslim and Mideastern photographers. Most of the work would not be considered photojournalism but rather an artist’s take on real life, but the line between the two in many instances was thin. One goal of the curators, I am sure, was to get away from the stereotypical image of life in the Arab world – veiled women and local craftsmen – and on the destruction that has wreaked havoc in the Empty Quarter so intensely this past decade. Talks and videos by Iranian photographers were highlighted during the weekend, as was the Arab Image Foundation, dedicated to preserving photography of the region going back one hundred and fifty years.

Given my affection for blue water, I especially liked these photos by Tehran-born Jalal Sepehr, seen at the Esther Woerdehoff Galerie. The experience reminded me of the mountain film festivals I’d seen in recent days, and my discouragement of the need for any more movies focused on privileged white people throwing themselves on boards off the tops of increasingly steeper mountains; art for art’s sake will always have a place, but art focused on the human condition – particularly when it is at its worst – is invaluable.

Hubert Reeves, “Poet of the Stars”

It’s rare to hear our planetary environmental issues talked about in celestial terms. But the other night in the countryside north of Quebec City – an early snow falling outside – I heard French Canadian Hubert Reeves take our future into deep space. The Montreal-born astrophysicist is a fixture on television and stages in his adopted hometown of Paris and environmental conferences around the world, in which he attempts to explain complex science to a popular audience. This night the so-called “poet of the stars” illustrated with one image just how big – or small – our problems here on Earth really are. Projecting just a solitary photo of our galaxy, with Earth just a pin-point among millions of other stars and planets, the Einstein-haired, one-time NASA adviser (whose PhD thesis was titled “Thermonuclear Reaction Involving Medium Light Nuclie”) paints a not-so-pretty future for our blue orb.

Planet Earth, just a tiny dot on the far left

Planet Earth, just a tiny dot on the far left

“Imagine two planets meet. One is grey and white, denuded of life. The other is blue and green and vibrant. Blue Planet asks Denuded Planet what’s wrong?”

“I’ve been sick, suffering from Human-itis. As you can see, it has nearly killed me. My atmosphere is polluted, land destroyed,” says Denuded. Blue Planet responds reassuringly. “Don’t worry. I know that disease. It doesn’t last long and once its gone, you’ll recover quickly.”

Using statistics on energy use (the oil on this planet took hundreds of millions of years to create and we’ve managed to use half of it in just one century) and man’s rapacious consumption of natural resources Reeves laid out a not particularly bright future. “In thirty years – so, your children live to see it – we will know the results of how we’ve treated the planet. It could be a very dark future.”

Asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about this planet’s future he paraphrased a French politician who helped orchestrate the rebuilding of post-war France and Germany. “He was asked the same question and said, ‘Neither. I’m determined.”

“That’s what we have to be in regard to the environment,” said Reeves. “Determined. We must try to make changes, to fix the mess we’ve made. We can’t give up. In regard to climate change, for example, some of the things being talked about and worked on will be successful. Some will not. But we must try. Saying things are ‘impossible’ to change means we have given up.”

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves

Surviving Aitutaki

AITUTAKI, Cook Islands – I’ve been to Aitutaki before, a few times … though I have to admit that sometimes these South Pacific islands have a tendency to run together. Attu, Tahaa, Raiatea, Raratonga, all covered with lush green mountains, simple cement docks serving as welcome mats, a fringe of coconut palms paralleling a solitary ring road circling, sometimes it’s hard for my feebling memory to keep them all straight. Aitutaki I remember best from gray days, its welcome veranda – metal posts, faux palm roof – filled with young boys and girls dancing, practicing. I remember it too for its “starring” role in the “Survivor” series, which came here a few years back, camped out for six-plus months, the best thing to ever happen to the place economically.

I’ve seen “Survivor” impact on other islands. A crew of one hundred moves onto the island, often building its own living quarters, docks and marinas. They bring a fleet of small pickup trucks, speedboats and bulldozers. Much of which get left behind. They employ dozens, treating them well and paying them U.S.-television rates (about thirty times what the local fishermen were making spending ten hours a day in their mahi-mahi boats, harpoon in hand), spoiling them for those inevitable days post-“Survivor.”

Under a shore side tent a New Zealand woman – the Cook’s lean distinctly Kiwi, not French – remembers the “Survivor” crew’s coming … and going. “It left a lot of people more or less distraught. When they were here filming, there was big action everyday. Boats racing back and forth, people coming and going, money being spent. And then … one day … they were gone. They left boats and trucks and houses behind. But no more action, no more money.”

The first Polynesians settled here in 800, led by a voyager named Ru, who named it Utataki Enua O Ru Ki Te Moana (“the leading of the cargo people by Ru over the ocean” or “where Ru turned his back on the sea”); the first westerner to stop was Captain William Bligh, 1789, just seventeen days before his infamous mutiny – he would return three years later, searching for the men who had cast him adrift.

It’s a wild and rough day in the South Pacific, three to four meter swells under a deceivingly blue and unadulterated sky. It’s easy when the ocean here is living up to its name to be lulled into believing the entire Pacific region is ruled by calm. Days like this are reminders that wildness is far more common. Watching the wild, sun-drenched seas from a brand new cement porch built by and for the local fishing co-op, constructed super strong against the potential of tsunami and other storm waves, I wonder what Captain James Cook would have made of “Survivor.”

I marvel often about how many times my route around the world has crossed Cook’s path; that dude was truly a wanderer. On so many islands I’ve stopped at I’ve been greeted by welcome signs – made of bamboo, surrounded with half clam shells – detailing the historic arrival of Cook and gang.

Cook’s first assignment, in 1768, from the Royal Society in London, was to sail the Pacific Ocean tracing the transit of Venus across the sun – a task more scientific than economic. After rounding Cape Horn he made it to Tahiti for the first time on April 13, 1769, where the observations were to be made. Unfortunately the astronomer he carried with him was not up to the task and the mission was a failure. Over the next few years Cook criss-crossed the Pacific several times all the while keeping his southern eye open for a place we both have an affection for, then known as Terra Incognito Australis. Antarctica. While Cook never fully found Antarctica – spying large icebergs he confused with the continent – he got closer than anyone before.

His complete mapping of the Pacific left little for future expeditions; he died ignominiously in Hawaii, due to either cultural arrogance or confused i.d., dependent on which story you prefer/believe. Maybe Cook would have liked “Survivor”; certainly he would have much preferred being judged by some kind of tribal council than a bunch of Hawaiian tough guys swinging heavy war-sticks.